A Life Less Ordinary: Remembering Jesse Winchester

Driving home earlier this month I heard a snatch of an NPR promo for an hourly show that promised "a look at the music and life of the late Jesse Winchester." I hadn't known. But this is always how one gets the grievous news that an artist held close is gone. I felt pierced, not unlike that Sunday morning, coming home with the New York Times and the donuts, when a radio newsreader told me that Gil Scott-Heron had passed. Bereft. Who to call? Winchester had been dead for almost a year.

He could write and deliver a stately ballad or the funkiest shuffle, and was a master of humor at his own expense. He had a rare gift of humbling anyone who listened, not a chastening but a way of reminding us to sit beside rather than above and alone. This particularly extended to other musicians, not a group always given to humility.

I missed that radio show, but I did return to his music, and in seeking out the old ones I discovered newer music I had missed, and got stuck on a YouTube page that had several live performances, including a songwriter's circle where he performed 'Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding.' (It's probably not the song you're thinking of).

Jesse Winchester: Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding on Elvis Costello's "Spectacle"

Near the end, tears roll down the cheeks of Neko Case. The crowd's response is a crescendo, first of amazement as the last note hangs, then this outpouring of joy for a skinny waif-like man with grey hair and a little gut string guitar, dressed for playing on the corner. "That's it, Jesse, show's over, you've finished me off," says Elvis Costello, the host. "Happened in rehearsal…happened again."

Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm helped introduce him as a young performer. Todd Rundgren produced several of the seminal Bearsville sessions. Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan publicly revered his songs. Mac McAnally gathered the personnel for Winchester's final studio album, "A Reasonable Amount of Trouble," and directed the project. Yet he was never a star by American standards, though his debut album appeared in 1970.

Part of the usual excuse for Winchester's own comparative anonymity was his move to Canada in 1967 to avoid serving or fighting in Vietnam ("I'm baptized by water; I'll pass on the one by fire").

He set up in Montreal and became a Canadian citizen, a fact celebrated by the memorable album Third Down, 110 to Go. President Carter extended amnesty in 1976 to draft evaders, but not to those who had become citizens of other countries. Barry Bozeman, Jesse's manager, arranged a meeting with Carter to speak on his behalf about broadening the amnesty. It must have been an interesting exchange, as Carter changed him mind and Jessie, who grew up in Memphis and Mississippi, was able to come back to America for the first time in 10 years. His first show, in Burlington, Vermont, was a sensation. It was not until 2002, however that he moved back to the United States.

So many of those songs are 'permanent files' among all the things I seem to be forgetting at sixty now, and it's been interesting to scroll through these live performances of songs like "Little Glass of Wine," "If I Were Free," "Mississippi You're on My Mind," "Songbird," and gems from the final record like "Just So Much the Lord Can Do" and "Every Day I Get the Blues."

Jesse Winchester: Mississippi You're On My Mind

Each of these are gentle pieces delivered in conviction, playfulness, and utter confidence, the titles themselves nothing special. Yet even in big halls, they sowed a special quality of quiet that would seem impossible to achieve among so many people, each listener leaning into the common experience uncommonly mediated. Jesse's bell tolled for each.

For those who were fortunate enough to know him, it was no different. The recording of his last record had begun with news that his cancer was in remission, but it quickly returned and left him so weakened he told Mac McAnally, 'You're going to have to finish the project… I'm just giving you the baton. You go.' He said,'I feel like it's in good hands.' I took that very seriously," McAnally said. "By the time we sent him the final mixed and mastered version, he was so weak that he had to keep it for about a week and a half before he could even listen to it. He did a little listening party with his family, he set up speakers — he wanted to do all that by himself, so he waited until he was strong enough — and he sent me a letter, an email letter that I will keep all my life, that's as nice of a thing that anybody's ever said to me about any work that I ever did."

"Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," John Donne wrote. "If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less." As is Memphis now, and Montreal; our particular continent, with its keen knack for taking genius for granted until its departure. RIP Jesse. We'll still be leaning in.

We'd like to thank guest-writer Mark Smith for introducing us to Jesse Winchester.

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